For the most part, food growing in urban spaces means compromise - alterations for space, for capacity to care and for security. This summer, we've been doing a lot in the alleys - tiny shared spaces that sit at the rear of the back-to-back terraces that are typical of central Middlesbrough. At best, they are quiet, peaceful, beautiful and, useful for gardens, warm and sheltered. At worst they have challenges that have included flytipping, misuse of bins, vandalism and theft. But we're all about making things wonderful!
We come across a lot of dumped items that occasionally include pallets. Pallets are a wonderful base for small construction projects as the wood from which they're made is, by its nature, strong, durable and resistant to the weather. And they're often free and dumped, so we make use of something that is cheap and would otherwise be wasted.
This pallet planter has been flipped upside down so that the flat surface forms the backdrop and the supports form the little planting spaces or pockets. All pallets are different, so you might need to adapt and use your imagination - remove a few pieces, saw a few bits off - that kind of thing. The ones to avoid are the blue chep pallets, which are heavy, difficult to paint over, and may leach toxins into food plants. The standard wooden ones come in an array of sizes, so choose one that's appropriate to the space you've got.
The pockets of this planter needed a base to hold in the compost. A couple of discarded decking boards were the perfect fit widthways. They were held in place and marked up with a pencil, then sawed to length. (A little stool was helpful for this, as may be an extra pair of hands!) If you aren't lucky enough to find decking boards, they're around £4 each from major DIY shops or a local timber merchant.
The decking board base was screwed into place with the pallet upside down. Not only is this much less fiddly, but the force of gravity helps drive in the screws. Only a manual screwdriver was needed - 6 screws in each base so 18 in total - but gloves are helpful to avoid blisters if it's not something you're used to.
(A note about screws: it's incredibly frustrating and off-putting not to use good quality screws, so particularly if this is the first time you've tried anything like this, it's worth the extra expense of decent hardware. These are my favourite choice for wood screws as they go in quickly and easily and don't require a pre-drilled pilot hole. A pilot hole is a narrower diameter hole that helps prevent splitting, but it usually requires an electric drill and is an extra step. I've never had the time or patience to pay any attention to sizes: you want a screw long enough to get a good grip on the wood, thick enough to be strong (there's some weight in a pallet!) but not so thick that it becomes difficult to drive in. The screw heads on these are Phillips/cross heads, which I generally find are easier to grip with a screwdriver, but make sure that the heads match the screwdriver you're using!)
It's not essential to line the pockets of the planter, but it helps make it last longer and also holds in the moisture over summer. One of the biggest challenges of small pots and planters is that they dry out very quickly, so anything that limits the amount of watering you need to do is good! You could buy landscape fabric or weed membrane, but old compost bags of Bags for Life are fine and are usually easier and cheaper to get hold of. Cut pieces the fit the base and up the sides of the planter pockets to finish just below the eventual soil line. A diamond shape fits better than a rectangle, where the corners can end up annoyingly bunched!
Pallet planters aren't suitable for all plants, as the pockets are small and shallow. When choosing the plants to use, bear in mind their size and shape - tall plants need to be in the top pockets, whereas those that trail might look better in the bottom ones. It's also likely that you'll have to change them at the end of the season as they outgrow the space available. This planter has been planted for culinary use, so chives, oregano, sage and alpine strawberries were used. When planting, add as much compost as possible, right up to the top. The more compost in, the more nutrients your plants are going to get and the less watering they'll need!
Your planter can be decorated however you choose. This one has had wooden bunting added, painted slate pieces and rocks which show the names of the plants, as well as odd bits and pieces that had been found and treasured! If you're wanting to fix it to a wall, a second pair of hands will be required. L shaped brackets are good for this, both below supporting the base and above and at the sides, fixing it in place. Make sure it's a sound wall that can bear the weight. A heavy duty electric drill, masonary bit and wall/rawl plugs will be required for this. If your planter is going onto metal fencing (ours is destined for alley gates), big screw-in cup hooks at the top or top/back are helpful for fixing, with screwdriver adjusted jubilee clips to secure it to the metal purlins of the fence. These also make it slightly less nickable!
The total cost for this pallet planter, was probably in the region of around £10. The plants were free - donated or propagated from elsewhere and about half a 50l compost bag was used. Two decking boards would've been around £8 total and the screws would be around £1. Everything possible was scavenged from waste!
If you've only a small space to work with, but want a useful and accessible growing area, then making a pallet planter is a great place to start. The techniques and skills may feel fiddly and awkward at first, but come easier with practice, and most of the tools and materials are easily borrowable. Set yourself aside a few hours to complete this project, and enough space to be comfortable and safe. And enjoy!
Treading Lightly is simple living, within your means and the means of the planet, and making a minimal impact on the Earth. Find out more here about Catherine, of Barefoot Solutions, does this from day to day.